{1}           Introduction

<< Church History (AD 30–2000) >>

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 1-2

        1.1.1  The study of church history

·         Elements of history: The study of history has 4 elements: event (happening), information (recording), inquiry (authenticity of information), and interpretation (subjective reconstruction). History as event is absolute and unchangeable but history as information, inquiry, and interpretation is relative and subject to change.

·         Definition: Church history is the interpreted record of the origin, progress, and impact of Christianity on human society.

o        Not a legend: Christianity is not a legend but part of history. The 4 Gospels and Acts are all historical records describing how Jesus and the Holy Spirit worked in man’s history.

o        Acts of the Holy Spirit: Some theologians proposed that the Acts of the Apostle may in fact be better named Acts of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the history of the church is in fact the history of the deeds done by the Holy Spirit through sinners. The church has her bright and dark times. Despite these, the gospel has been spread, and the Bible has been taught.

·         Past & present: The past influences us in the present. Traditions affect the way we read the Bible. To decide the impact of something in the past on what we witness in the present, we first have to understand it. Only by understanding the past can we evaluate our present faith (doctrines) and practice (customs) in the church.

        1.1.2  Values of church history

·         PAST: An aid to understanding: Church history examines and explains the origin and development of present beliefs and practices; in order that we can understand and treasure our great Christian heritage.

·         PAST: An inspiration for thanksgiving: Church history provides historical evidence for the role of Christianity in the development of western civilization, and demonstrates the reality of God’s providence in guiding and protecting the church; in order that we can appreciate God’s eternal plan and give all the glory to God.

·         PRESENT: A correctional guide: Church history describes and analyzes past problems and difficulties in the church; in order that we can avoid falling into the same doctrinal errors and false practices, and can also correct them. [negative application]

·         PRESENT: A practical tool: Church history traces and reviews major events that affect the universal church; in order that we can comprehend historical doctrines and religious movements such as mysticism and pietism, and apply the knowledge in the life today. [positive application]

·         FUTURE: A motivating force: Church history records the toil and sacrifices of past saints; in order that we can empathize their experience and be motivated to follow their example and live a holy and spiritual life.

·         SUMMARY—APPLICATION: Practical actions from the study of church history include: [1] treasure our heritage, [2] appreciate God’s providence, [3] avoid past errors, [4] apply our knowledge, [5] follow past saints.


        1.2.1  Reason for division

·         For memorization: History is a continuous stream of events within the framework of time and space. The division of church history into eras is only an artificial device to divide the continuous data of history into easily handled segments and to aid readers in remembering the essential facts.

·         For organization: From one era to the next, there is a gradual transition from a view of life and human activity that characterizes one era of history to a view that characterizes the next era. Yet, the division of history into eras does help one to deal with one segment at a time, concentrating the view of life in that period, developing descriptive and analytical themes.

        1.2.2  Division used in this course

·         Easy to remember: Each church historian usually prefers his own division of eras for various reasons. Each of the references used in this course (see Bibliography) employs their own unique scheme. In this course, the objective is to adopt a scheme that draws good points from other schemes. Another objective is to develop one that is easy to remember. That is why the present scheme uses centuries as divisions.

·         Ancient to medieval: Most of the schemes divide church history into 3 main periods: early or ancient church, medieval church, and modern church. The division between Early Church and Medieval Church approximates the reign of Pope Gregory I [590–604]. He was sometimes called the last of the Church Fathers who were a group of influential theologians and writers who built the foundation of the church. Gregory I asserted the authority of the Bishop of Rome—the pope—above all others in the universal church. It therefore marked the real beginning of the papacy. Therefore, the present scheme uses 600 as the dividing year.

·         Medieval to modern: The division between Medieval Church and Modern Church approximates the beginning of the Reformation and 1517 was the year when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses. However, Reformation did not begin suddenly in 1517 as many events happened previously leading to the culmination in 1517. Therefore, the present scheme uses 1500 as the dividing year.


Divisional Limits & Themes

30                                                                                                                                                     Founding of the church

            Era 1: Early Church (1): Persecutions (AD 30–300)

300                                                                                                   End of persecution—Victory of Constantine [313]

            Era 2: Early Church (2):  Stability (AD 300–600)

600                                                                                                                              Reign of Pope Gregory I [590–604]

            Era 3: Medieval Church (1):  Expansion & Conflicts (AD 600–1000)

1000                                Schism between Eastern & Western churches [1054]; beginning of the 2nd millennium

            Era 4: Medieval Church (2):  Growth & Decline of the Papacy (AD 1000–1500)

1500                                                                                                           Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther [1517]

            Era 5: Modern Church (1):  Reformation & Struggles (AD 1500–1700)

1700                                Beginning of missionary societies—Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge [1698]

            Era 6: Modern Church (2):  Revival & Missions (AD 1700–1900)

1900                                               Beginning of ecumenism—World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh [1910]

            Era 7: Modern Church (3):  Ecumenism & Adaptations (AD 1900–2000)

2000                                                                                                                                 Beginning of the 3rd millennium

            Era 8: Postmodern Church: World Evangelism (AD 2000–??)


Divisional Scheme

Early Church
(AD 30–600)


Era 1:   Early Church (1):
(AD 30–300)

Era 2:   Early Church (2):
(AD 300–600)


Medieval Church
(AD 600–1500)


Era 3:   Medieval Church (1):
Expansion & Conflicts
(AD 600–1000)

Era 4:   Medieval Church (2):
Growth & Decline of the Papacy
(AD 1000–1500)


Modern Church
(AD 1500–2000)


Era 5:   Modern Church (1):
Reformation & Struggles
(AD 1500–1700)

Era 6:   Modern Church (2):
Revival & Missions
(AD 1700–1900)

Era 7:   Modern Church (3):
Ecumenism & Adaptations
(AD 1900–2000)



        1.3.1  Hellenism

·         Palestine: The region had been the target of conquest of many powerful empires, from Persian to Greek and then Roman. Jews were always under strong religious pressure because of the government’s policy to harmonize all the religions from various ethnic groups. Unrest and instability were common in the several centuries before Jesus was born.

·         Hellenism: The Greeks’ way was to equate and mix their thinking and various cultures and religions so that all people would agree to a common standard within the empire. Many Jews resisted this as they only believed in one God. That led to many Jewish rebellions against the empire, such as the Maccabees in 2nd-c BC.

·         Greek language: Greek was the universal language for commerce, the courts, the educated, and international communications. The NT was written in Greek. This dialect of the common man, known as Koine, was different from classical Greek. The language was used in daily life at that time. It was studied by academics in 19th-c when papyri records were discovered. The presence of a universal language known to all helped the spreading of the gospel.

        1.3.2  Greek philosophy

·         Schools of Greek philosophy: There were 4 main schools of Greek philosophy, the first 3 influencing the early Christian writers: [1] Platonism, founded by Plato (428–347 BC) who was a pupil of Socrates (470–399 BC); [2] Aristotelianism, founded by Plato’s pupil Aristotle (384–322 BC); [3] Stoicism, founded by Zeno (333–263 BC) [4] Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus (341–270 BC).

·         Platonism: Plato’s philosophy followed his teacher Socrates. Platonism criticized the ancient gods, and taught about a supreme being, perfect and immutable. Socrates and Plato both believed in the immortality of the soul. Plato also affirmed that there was a higher world of abiding truth. Christians used these to teach about God, eternal life, and the gospel.

·         Aristotelianism: It was a new development from Platonism. In contrast to the rationalism and idealism of Plato, Aristotelianism brought Plato’s ideals down to earth as practical goals.

·         Stoicism: Stoics believed that the purpose of philosophy was to understand the law of nature, and to obey and adjust to it. The ideal was apatheialife without passions. The virtues to cultivate included: moral insight, courage, self-control, and justice. They criticized the religion of their time because their gods tried to satisfy their desires rather than calling for virtue. The Stoic notion of natural law as the guide to wisdom was taken up by Christian apologists who argued that Christian life followed that natural law.

·         Epicureanism: It was a materialistic and hedonist philosophy. It regarded pleasure as the sole intrinsic good. It opposed superstition and divine intervention. The greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain [1] a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, as well as [2] absence of bodily pain through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form.

·         Hellenism helping Christianity: Hellenism provided eastern Mediterranean with a unity that opened the way first to Roman conquest, and later to the preaching of the gospel. Greek philosophy prepared for the coming of Christianity by destroying the older religions. At the time of Christ, philosophy had declined from the peak at Plato’s time to a system of self-centred individualistic thought such as Stoicism and Epicureanism.

        1.3.3  Judaism

·         Leading to Christianity: Judaism contributed to Christianity by establishing the heritage of monotheism, the messianic hope, an ethical system, and the OT Scripture. The Jewish view of the philosophy of history was that history had meaning. They opposed any view that made history a meaningless series of cycles or a mere process of linear evolution. They upheld a linear and cataclysmic view of history in which God would triumph over man’s failure to bring about a golden age at the end. The synagogues provided Christians a meeting place where the gospel could be preached, such as in Paul’s missionary journeys.

·         Jewish sects: Judaism was divided into many groups, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes. Each group had a slightly different point of view against the government’s Hellenizing policy. Some were liberal Hellenists, willing to follow the Greek culture; others were conservative Hebraists, insisting on keeping the Hebrew culture. Christians (called “Nazarenes”) were seen as a Jewish sect.

o        Pharisees: emphasis on traditional orthodoxy and stiff formalism; influence more among the poor; controlling the public worship; focusing on the Law and its application against Hellenizing threats (Hebraists).

o        Sadducees: skeptical, rationalistic, and worldly-minded; denying the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul; followers from the rich people; focusing on the Temple; good relationship with the Romans (Hellenists).

o        Essenes: mystic and ascetic order; using allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament; withdrawing from the society (they probably wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls).

o        Zealots: radicals, leading most rebellions against the Roman government.

·         Diaspora Judaism: Diaspora means “scattering”. Judaism with their synagogues had been spread to most cities of the Roman Empire. They provided the opportunities for evangelism.

o        Septuagint: As the people of the diaspora might not know Hebrew, the Greek translation of the OT was needed. This is the Septuagint (abbreviation: LXX), originated and translated in Alexandria. Quotes of the OT in NT books are usually from the Septuagint.

o        Accommodation: They had to come to accommodate with the Hellenizing pressure. They focused on finding common ground between Greek philosophy and the philosophy in Judaism, as can be seen from the work of Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–AD 50). This was later used as a tool for evangelism, by arguing the validity of Christianity.

        1.3.4  The Greco-Roman world

·         Political unity: Since the time of Alexander (356–323 BC), cultural unity in the form of Hellenism had been the focus. With the political unity in the Roman Empire, the early Christians were able to travel without having to fear bandits or local wars. The system of straight, well-paved, durable, and well-guarded roads also helped the spread of Christianity.

·         Roman culture: The Romans were a practical and political nation of ancient times. Their greatest contribution to man was in their law. While not creative in writing or in fine arts, the Roman authors were successful imitators of Greek philosophers, orators, historians, and poets.

·         Spiritual vacuum: Roman conquests led to a loss of belief by many people in their local gods because the gods could not keep them from defeat. They were left with a spiritual vacuum which was filled up by Christianity. For the Romans, polytheistic pagan religion became so cold, ritualistic, and meaningless, that many Romans began to seek spiritual sustenance outside their traditional mythological religion.

·         View of Christians by Romans: Romans regarded both the Jews and the Christians as fanatics who insisted in worshipping one god, deviating from the polytheistic Roman religion, which was originated from the Greek religion.

·         Emperor worship: Worshipping the Roman emperor was used as a test of loyalty and a means of unity.


        1.4.1  Benefits of Greek philosophy

·         Use of Greek philosophy: Some early Christians used what they learned from Greek philosophy to defend Christianity or to communicate their faith, particularly Platonism and Stoicism.

·         Seeking ideals: Both Socrates and Plato taught that this present temporal world of the senses is but a shadow of the real world in which the highest ideals are such intellectual abstractions as the good, the beautiful, and the true. Christianity offered to those who accepted Greek philosophy the historical revelation of the good, the beautiful, and the true in the person of Christ.

·         Greek concepts: Greeks also held to the immortality of the soul. They were also concerned about questions of right and wrong, and man’s eternal future. Since all these concepts fitted well with Christianity, knowledge of these concepts made the acceptance of Christian emphases by Greeks and Romans easier.

·         Being vs becoming: Fundamental to both Plato and Aristotle is the distinction between being and becoming. In this world, everything is subject to change and decay. Nothing is unchanging—it is always becoming something else rather than simply being what it is. In contrast to this world of change, there is a realm of being which is eternal and unchanging. In Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, there is an eternal unchanging Idea or Form, e.g. “man”. Individual human beings are merely pale reflections or imitations of this eternal Idea. It is the Idea that is real. These abstract concepts in the Greek culture led them to seek for a higher truth which they discovered in Christianity.

        1.4.2  Drawbacks of Greek philosophy

·         Dualism: Some theology of the early church was tainted by the application of Greek philosophy to explain Christian truth. For example, the Greek philosophers saw man as essentially twofold: body and soul. The body belongs to this world of becoming and change. The soul is the divine spark from the world of being, and it is rational. The real person is the soul, so the Greeks despised the body and the material world. Gnosticism was a natural step based on this philosophy.

·         Logos: Plato and Aristotle taught one supreme transcendent God. The problem was that the Greek God belongs to the realm of being and is thus unchanging and immutable. He cannot have contact with this world of becoming and change. He therefore needs a mediator between himself and this world. One common title used by Greek thought for this mediating power or principle was Logos, which means both Reason and Word. This concept was used in John chapter 1. But the problem was that the Greek Logos was clearly different from God and inferior to him. This led to later Christological controversies in the church. Some Greek concepts which are opposed to the Bible remained to influence early Christianity.


        1.5.1  Founding of the church

·         Which year? The Christian church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2). Since the birth year of Jesus is not known for certain, the exact year of the foundation of the church is also not known. However, most historians believed that Jesus was born before AD1, even though the counting system [devised in AD525, where AD (Latin Anno Domini) means “Year of the Lord”] was based on the birth of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew places Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4BC. Therefore, conclusions of historians for Jesus’ birthdate were mostly between 7BC and 4BC, the majority being 4BC. Since Jesus was baptized when he was “about 30 years of age” (Luke 3:23)—perhaps between 28 and 32; and He preached for 3 years (based on reference of the Passovers in John), the year of His death, resurrection, and the founding of the Christian church would be around AD30.

·         After Pentecost: On the day of the Pentecost, 3000 people were baptized into the church. After the foundation of the church, the Christians were meeting in homes. The number of Christians increased rapidly because of Christian witness (Acts 2:47). From the Bible, we know that almost all the new Christians were ethnic Jews, or religious Jews, those Gentiles who were converted into Judaism. They continued to keep the Sabbath and attending worship in the Temple. Thirty years after the establishment of the church, Jewish Christians were still very much zealous for the Law of Moses (Acts 21).



[1] treasure our heritage

Judaism provides a foundation for Christianity.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

The Roman Empire helped evangelization.

[3] avoid past errors

Caution is needed when secular philosophy is used in apologetical arguments. Gnosticism was a natural step from Greek philosophy.

[4] apply our knowledge

The Platonic concepts of “being” and “becoming” need to be understood.

[5] follow past saints

Good witness can bring people to Christ (Acts 2:46-47).



        Why should we study church history?

o        Studying church history can help our life and our church.

          We can treasure our Christian heritage from the past, understanding how doctrines and religious practices came into existence. We can also praise and thank God for His providence and guidance of the church in the past two millennia.

          Past errors can provide us with a lesson so that we can avoid them in the present, such as difficulties from the lack of unity, development of heresies from theological speculations, and radicalization from excesses. On the other hand, good things that happened, such as methodical defense of our faith, can provide us a model to apply in our church today.

          The labour and sacrifices of past saints can motivate us to follow their examples in the future, so that we live a spiritual life pleasing to God.

        Does studying history affect the interpretation of the Bible? If yes, how?

o        Yes, the way we interpret the Bible is coloured by our culture and our tradition. By studying history, we understand a little more about how historical Christians understand and interpret the Bible.

        Why did the Jews want someone to lead them against the ruling Roman Empire?

o        They wanted someone to lead them out of the control of the Romans in order to keep their religion, especially in their ethical monotheism and their eschatological hope (that God would intervene by sending a Messiah to restore Israel and fulfil the promise of a kingdom of peace and justice).

        What is the right response if the government “suppress” your religion?

o        It depends what the suppression is. The principle is obeying God instead of obeying man if the two contradict (Ac 5:29). If the government prohibits worshipping God, then we must disregard the prohibition. If the suppression can be opposed through legitimate channels, such as lawsuits in courts, then legitimate channels should be followed.

        Which one of the following is more important, and why? [a] find out the values in the world which is against the Bible and avoid conforming to the world, or [b] find out the values in the world which agree to the Bible and use the information to spread the gospel.

o        Both are important. The first one to build up the foundation of faith and the second one to lead others to salvation. However, only if the foundation is solid can a Christian continue to serve God. So the first is logically more important.